Some of the most simple things in cinema, a door, a window, or even a staircase, can carry incredible meaning.
Filmmakers tell stories, and we use screenplays, cinematography, sound, editing, and whole lot more to do it. But one of the amazing talents the greatest filmmakers in history have had is the ability to give everyday objects key narrative significance. In the same way that doors have been used as a visual shorthand for "isolation", "loneliness", and "voyeurism", staircases have been used to convey a number of interesting themes and concepts, which we can explore after watching this supercut of stairs in films by filmmaker and editor Albert Gómez of Room 237.
So, what do staircases represent in film? Well, a lot of things. In Rocky, they represent an underdog overcoming an obstacle, feeling triumphant that all of his hard work has paid off. In Sunset Boulevard, they represent the status of a faded silent era Hollywood star, descending from on high to greet the commoners (paparazzi) below. In Battleship Potemkin, they represent the unfair battle between an oppressive government and the proletariate, with troops bearing down on the fleeing masses, guns and bayonets in hand.
There are plenty of other films from which to draw examples, but the metaphors in the imagery aren't too difficult to come up with. Staircases can represent:
- Power: Those are the top are often considered to be powerful, while those at the bottom are powerless.
- Achieving a goal: Climbing stairs is a visual representation of "leveling up."
- Bridges: Stairs connect the bottom floor to the next floor, and in the same way, they can metaphorically connect individuals.
- The obstacle ahead: You know that classic shot of a character looking up at all of the flights of stairs they have left to climb.
- Enlightenment: Again, stairs and levels go hand in hand, and when a character reaches the next level intellectually, stairs could serve as a good vehicle to represent that. (You saw this in the final scene in The Truman Show.)
So yes, there are tons of ways to use stairs as a narrative tool in film, which is a great reminder, because that all things that seem meaningless on a set can be used the same way, too. The set is rife with possible metaphors that you can use to make your story more interesting.